New York Times bestselling author of The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende celebrates the pleasures of the sensual life in this rich, joyful and slyly humorous book, a combination of personal narrative and treasury of erotic lore.
Under the aegis of the Goddess of Love, Isabel Allende uses her storytelling skills brilliantly in Aphrodite to evoke the delights of food and sex. After considerable research and study, she has become an authority on aphrodisiacs, which include everything from food and drink to stories and, of course, love. Readers will find here recipes from Allende's mother, poems, stories from ancient and foreign literatures, paintings, personal anecdotes, fascinating tidbits on the sensual art of foodand its effects on amorous performance, tips on how to attract your mate and revive flagging virility, passages on the effect of smell on libido, a history of alcoholic beverages, and much more.
An ode to sensuality that is an irresistible blend of memory, imagination and the senses, Aphrodite is familiar territory for readers who know her fiction.
Release date: April 19, 2022
Print pages: 320
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AND RONDO CAPRICCIOSO
The fiftieth year of our life is like
the last hour of dusk,
when the sun has set and one turns
naturally toward reflection.
In my case, however, dusk incites me to sin,
and perhaps for that reason,
in my fiftieth year I find myself reflecting
on my relationship
with food and eroticism; the weaknesses
of the flesh that most tempt
me are not, alas,
those I have practiced most.
I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue. Walking through the gardens of memory, I discover that my recollections are associated with the senses.
My Aunt Teresa, she who was slowly turning into an angel and died with buds of embryonic wings upon her shoulder blades, is linked forever with the scent of violet pastilles. When that enchanting lady came to visit, her gray dress discreetly highlighted by a lace collar and her snow-crowned head, we children would run to meet her and she, with ritual precision, would open a pocketbook worn slick with age—always the same one—and take out a small painted tin box from which she chose a mauve candy to hand to each of us. Ever since then, when the unmistakable scent of violets floats upon the air, the image of that sainted aunt, who stole flowers from others’ gardens to take to dying inmates of the poorhouse, floods back into my heart, intact. Forty years later, I learned that the scent of violet was the cachet of Josephine Bonaparte, who trusted blindly in the aphrodisiac power of that evanescent aroma, a scent that suddenly assaults the senses with a nearly nauseating intensity only to disappear without a trace, then return with renewed ardor. Before their amorous encounters, the courtesans of ancient Greece used violet to perfume their breath and erogenous zones, because when blended with the natural odors of perspiration and feminine secretions, violet alleviates the melancholia of the eldest men and torments the young beyond endurance. In the Tantra, the mystical and spiritual philosophy that exalts the union of opposites at all levels, from the cosmic to the infinitesimal, and in which man and woman are mirrors of divine energies, violet is the color of female sexuality, which is why it has been adopted by some feminist movements.
For me, the penetrating odor of iodine stirs images not of wounds or surgeries, but of sea urchins, those strange creatures of the deep inevitably related to my initiation into the mystery of the senses. I was eight when the rough hand of a fisherman placed the tongue of a sea urchin in my mouth. When I visit Chile, I seek the opportunity to go to the coast and taste freshly caught sea urchins once more, and every time I am flooded by the same mixture of terror and fascination I felt during that first intimate encounter with a man. Those ocean creatures are inseparable in my mind from that fisherman, with his dark sack of shellfish streaming seawater, and my awakening sensuality. That is how I remember all the men who have passed through my life—I don’t want to boast, there aren’t that many—some by the texture of their skin, others by the flavor of their kisses, the smell of their clothing, or the sound of their murmuring voice, and almost all of them are associated with some special food. The most intense carnal pleasure, enjoyed at leisure in a clandestine, rumpled bed, a perfect combination of caresses, laughter, and intellectual games, has the taste of a baguette, prosciutto, French cheese, and Rhine wine. With any of these treasures of cuisine, a particular man materializes before me, a long-ago lover who returns, persistent as a beloved ghost, to ignite a certain roguish fire in my mature years. That bread with ham and cheese brings back the essence of our embraces, and that German wine, the taste of his lips. I cannot separate eroticism from food and see no reason to do so. On the contrary, I want to go on enjoying both as long as strength and good humor last. Thence the idea for this book, which is a mapless journey through the regions of sensual memory, in which the boundaries between love and appetite are so diffuse that at times they evaporate completely.
To justify yet one more collection of recipes or erotic instructions is not easy. Every year thousands are published, and frankly, I don’t know who buys them, because I have never known anyone who cooks or makes love from a manual. People who work hard to earn a living and who pray in secret, like you and me, improvise in casseroles and bedroom romps as best we can, using what we have at hand, without brooding over it or making too much fuss, grateful for our remaining teeth and our enormous good fortune in having someone to embrace. All right, then, so why this book? Because the idea of poking about a bit in aphrodisiacs seems amusing to me and I hope it will be to you as well. In these pages I intend to approximate the truth, but that will not always be possible. What, for example, can one say about parsley? Some things scream for a little creativity . . .
Since time immemorial, in order to stimulate amorous desire and fertility, humanity has called upon substances, tricks, magic acts, and games that serious and virtuous people hasten to classify as perversions. Fertility will not interest us here—everyone else, you will have noticed, already has too many children—we’re going to concentrate on pleasure. In a book on magic and love philters stacked among many similar tomes on my desk are formulas from medieval and even earlier times, some of which are practiced to this day, such as sticking pins in an unfortunate, still living toad and then burying it amid muttered incantations on a given Friday night. Friday, it seems, is woman’s day. The other six fall to men.
I found, too, a spell for trapping an elusive lover still practiced in certain rural areas of Great Britain. The woman kneads flour, water, and lard, sprinkles the dough with her saliva, then places it between her legs to endow it with the form and savor of her secret parts. She bakes this bread and offers the loaf to the object of her desire.
Long ago, philters of blood—often elixir rubeus or menstrual blood—and other bodily fluids were fermented in the hollow of a skull by the light of the moon. If the skull belonged to a criminal who had died on the gallows, so much the better. There are a surprising number of aphrodisiacs of this nature, but we are going to concentrate on those that could be dreamed up in normal minds and kitchens. In these times, there are very few women who have time to muck about kneading dough or have access to a human head.
The ultimate purpose of aphrodisiacs is to incite carnal love, but if we waste all our time and energy in preparing them we won’t have much left for luxuriating in their effects. That is why you won’t find any long-winded recipes here, except in a few unavoidable cases such as our orgiastic dishes. We have also consciously omitted recipes that necessitate cruelty. Can anyone who spends the day concocting a stew made of canary tongues actually concentrate on erotic games later? Spending my savings on a dozen of those delicate little birds, then mercilessly tearing out their tongues, would kill my libido forever. Robert Shekter, the creator of the satyrs and nymphs slipping through the pages of this book, was a pilot in the Second World War. His worst nightmares are not of bombings and corpses, however; no, rather of a distracted duck he brought down with his shotgun. When he went over to it, he saw it was still flapping its wings, and he had to wring its neck to prevent further suffering. He’s been a vegetarian ever since. It seems that when the duck was shot it fell into a vegetable garden, flattening a head of lettuce, so he won’t touch lettuce either. It is extremely difficult to prepare an erotic meal for a man with such limitations. Robert would never have collaborated with me on a project that included tortured canaries.
You will not find shark fins, baboon testicles, and other like ingredients here, because they don’t turn up in neighborhood supermarkets. If you need to go to such extremes to pique your libido or fire your desire to make love, we suggest you consult a psychiatrist—or find a new partner. Our sole focus will be on the sensual art of food and its effects on amorous performance, and the recipes we offer contain products that can be ingested without peril of death—at least in the short term—and are delicious besides. Broccoli, therefore, is not included. We limit ourselves to simple aphrodisiacs, like oysters passed from your lover’s mouth to yours, following an infallible recipe of Casanova, who used this method to seduce a pair of naughty novitiates, or the smooth paste of honey and ground almonds that Cleopatra’s lucky lovers licked from her intimate parts, in the process going out of their minds, along with modern recipes that contain fewer calories and cholesterol. We do not offer any supernatural potions, for this is a practical book and we know how difficult it is to find paws of koala, eye of salamander, and urine of a virgin—three species on the endangered list.
The road of gluttony leads straight to lust and, if traveled a little farther, to the loss of one’s soul. This is why Lutherans, Calvinists, and other aspirants to Christian perfection eat so poorly. Catholics, on the other hand, who are born resigned to the concept of original sin and human frailty and who are purified by confession, free to go and sin again, are much more flexible in regard to the groaning board, so much so that the expression “a cardinal’s tidbit” was coined to define something delicious. Lucky for me that I was brought up among the latter group and can devour as many treats as I wish with no thought of hell, only of my hips, although it has not been equally easy to shake off taboos relating to eroticism. I belong to the generation of women who married the first person with whom they “went all the way,” because once their virginity was history, they were used goods on the matrimonial market, even though usually their partners were as inexperienced as they and seldom qualified to distinguish between virginity and prudery. If it weren’t for the Pill, hippies, and women’s lib, many of us would still be captives of obsessive monogamy.
Morning Grace, painting by Martin Maddox, 1991.
In the Judeo-Christian culture, which divides the individual into body and soul, and love into profane and divine, anything having to do with sexuality, other than its reproductive function, is abominated. That demarcation was carried to the extreme when virtuous couples made love through an opening in the woman’s nightgown embroidered in the form of a cross. Only the Vatican could imagine something that pornographic! In the rest of the world, sexuality is a component of good health; it inspires creation and is part of the pathway of the soul. It is not associated with guilt or secretiveness because sacred and profane love issue from the same source and it is supposed that the gods celebrate human pleasure. Unfortunately, it took me some thirty years to discover this. In Sanskrit the word that defines the joy of the creative principle is similar to the word for sensual bliss. In Tibet copulation is practiced as a spiritual exercise, and in Tantrism it is a form of meditation. The woman straddles the man, who is seated in the lotus position; they erase all thoughts from their mind, count their breaths, and lift their souls toward the divine, as their bodies join with tranquil elegance. Now, that makes you want to meditate.
Robert Shekter actively participated in the development of this project with his drawings, Panchita Llona with her recipes, and Carmen Balcells as agent. Participating passively were some fifty authors whose texts I consulted without asking their permission and whom I have no intention of mentioning, because bibliographies are a bore. Copying one author is plagiarism; copying many is research. And many of my friends participated innocently, all those who to please me lent themselves to testing the recipes and telling me their experiences, even though they were convinced that this book would never see the light of day.
Out of pure poetic inclination, it occurred to Robert Shekter to package the book with a CD of erotic music and to divide the topics into the Four Seasons, after Vivaldi, but that turned out to be more confusing than we could handle. Panchita tried to create her dishes while keeping in mind the produce of the seasons, but when Robert also asked her to give them musical names, she told him to shove off. It seems that most musical terms are in Italian, and you can’t call a burrito with chilis allegro ma non troppo. So if in these pages you find some Italian musical phrase or other that may have been overlooked, don’t pay any attention: it’s a mere artist’s caprice. The idea of the CD faced a similar fate because we couldn’t agree about what constitutes erotic music. Panchita leaned toward Ravel’s Bolero, Robert toward Bach, and I voted for the sound of an organ grinder that drifted in through the window one summer afternoon when . . . But that’s another story.
Robert is a scientist. He did not allow me any novelist’s tricks; he demanded precision. I had to show him the mountain of books I used in my research, and we had to evaluate the aphrodisiac power of Panchita’s recipes using a method of Robert’s invention. We called on volunteers of both sexes and diverse races, subjects over forty years old, since even a cup of chamomile tea turns on the young, which would have skewed our statistics. After inviting our guests to dinner and observing their conduct, we took painstaking measurements and noted down the results. They were quite similar to those I had obtained years ago when I was working as a journalist and had to write a report on the efficacy of black magic in Venezuela. Subjects who knew they were the target of voodoo rites began to rave and expel demonic humors; pimples erupted in their throats and their hair fell out. In contrast, subjects who remained in happy ignorance went on as prosperously as before. In the case of this book, friends who as they enjoyed the aphrodisiacs were informed of their power confessed to delicious thoughts, winged impulses, fits of perverse imagination and secretive behavior, while those who knew nothing about the experiment devoured their fare without visible change. Twice it was enough to leave the manuscript on the table, with the title in full view, for the aphrodisiac to take effect; table companions began nibbling each other’s ears even before we served dinner. From which I deduce that, as in the case of black magic, it is a good idea to notify the participants. That way you save time and effort.
Once we had our plan, each of us got to work, and to the degree that nymphs, satyrs, and other mythological creatures streamed from Robert’s pen, fabulous dishes from Panchita’s kitchen, mathematical calculations from Carmen’s fertile brain, and my investigations from the library, our spirits changed. Robert’s aches and pains diminished, and he’s thinking of buying a sailboat. Panchita stopped saying her beads, Carmen gained a few pounds, and I tattooed a shrimp on my navel. The first manifestations of concupiscence appeared when we outlined the list of subjects. By the time we tasted the first aphrodisiac mouthfuls, we already had one foot in an extended orgy. Robert is a bachelor, so I prefer not to ask how things have been going for him. Carmen Balcells’s skin is like porcelain after taking her weekly baths in chicken broth. Panchita’s husband and mine have a bounce in their step and leap out at us from behind doors with a wicked gleam in their eyes. If these dishes have been that successful with old codgers like us, what might they do for you?
Toward the end, when I thought we were finished and in the last round of revisions, I realized that among all the aphrodisiacs, from shellfish with herbs and spices to lace chemises, rose-colored lights, and aromatic bath salts, there was one, the most powerful of all, I hadn’t included: stories. In our long lives as appreciators of pleasure, Robert, Panchita, Carmen, and I had ascertained that the greatest enhancement to eroticism, as effective as the most knowing caresses, is the story, told between freshly ironed sheets, that leads to love—as demonstrated by Scheherazade, the prodigious storyteller of Araby who for 1,001 nights captivated a cruel sultan with her golden tongue.
He had returned from the field of battle without warning—an unpardonable error that has produced a multitude of tragedies—and found one of his wives, his favorite, happily frolicking with her slaves. He had her decapitated and then, with clear masculine logic, decided to possess a virgin every night and deliver her to the executioner at dawn to have her beheaded. That would leave no opportunity for her to be unfaithful to him. Scheherazade was one of the last available damsels in that nightmarish kingdom. She was not so much beautiful as wise, and she had the gift of words and an overflowing imagination. The first night, after the sultan had taken her without giving it much thought, she arranged her veils and began to tell him a long and fascinating story that lasted several hours. With the first light of dawn, Scheherazade discreetly fell silent, leaving the monarch in such suspense that he granted her one more day of life, even at the risk that she would deceive him in her thoughts, for considering her heavy guard, she could not deceive him any other way. And so, story after story, night after night, the girl saved her neck from the scimitar, relieved the sultan’s pathological insecurity, and achieved immortality.
Once an exquisite dinner has been prepared and served, once the secret warmth of the wine and tickle of the spices are coursing through the bloodstream and the anticipation of caresses turns the skin to a rosy glow, it is the moment to pause for a few minutes, postponing the encounter so that the lovers may regale each other with a story or a poem, as in the most refined traditions of the East. A story may also reawaken passion after the first enfolding, when lucidity and breath return and the couple is resting, well satisfied. Storytelling is a good way to keep the man awake, who tends to drop as if anesthetized, and to divert the woman when she begins to feel bored. That story or those verses are unique and precious: no one has told them or will ever tell them in that tone, at that rhythm, with that particular voice or precise intent. It isn’t at all the same as a video, please, I beg you. If both lack a natural talent for making up stories, they can call upon the enormous, titillating repertoire of world literature, from the most exquisite erotic books to the most vulgar pornography—as long as it’s kept to a minimum. The skill lies in prolonging pleasure by reading an exciting but brief excerpt; the amorous impetus won with the meal should not be misspent in literary excess. We are talking about how something as trivial as sex can be turned into an unforgettable occasion.
In my book The Stories of Eva Luna, there is a prologue that evokes the power of storytelling, something I couldn’t have written had I not lived it. Forgive the arrogance of quoting myself, but I believe it illustrates my point. The lovers, Eva Luna and Rolf Carlé, are resting after impassioned lovemaking. In Rolf’s photographic memory, the scene resembles an ancient painting in which a man’s lover is lying beside him, her legs drawn up, a silk shawl over one shoulder, her skin still moist from love. Rolf describes the painting this way:
The man’s eyes are closed; one hand is on his chest and the other on her thigh, in intimate complicity. That vision is recurrent and immutable; nothing changes: always the same peaceful smile on the man’s face, always the woman’s languor, the same folds in the sheets, the same dark corners of the room, always the lamplight strikes her breasts and cheekbones at the same angle, and always the silk shawl and the dark hair fall with the same delicacy.
Every time I think of you, that is how I see you, how I see us, frozen for all time on that canvas, immune to the fading of memory. I spend immeasurable moments imagining myself in that scene, until I feel I am entering the space of the photograph and am no longer the man who observes but the man lying beside the woman. Then the quiet symmetry of the picture is broken and I hear voices very close to my ear.
“Tell me a story,” I say to you.
“Tell me a story you have never told anyone before. Make it up for me.”
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